Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Increasing trust and wellbeing is a higher education priority

The nature of higher education has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic through the necessary switch to digital tools and platforms. Research shows that universities must focus on stakeholder wellbeing and trust as a top priority.

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Data in the globe-spanning Global Higher Education Research Snapshot by Salesforce, gathered from a survey of higher-education students and staff around the world, shows that COVID-19 has forced universities worldwide to make sweeping changes in operations. According to the research,  more than half of students worldwide report that the pandemic has changed their education plans, with significant numbers saying they will postpone their education (28 percent) or take longer to earn a degree (32 percent). 

The COVID-19 era has also increased the numbers of students who say they expect to learn differently or will require more financial aid. More than half of university employees (52 percent) believe that students can benefit as much from online learning as they can from entering a classroom. In my opinion, we may be experiencing 10 years of cultural and digital transformation, accelerated in the past 10 months. Research also highlights that students now place a higher value on being connected, their institutions, and their professors during the pandemic. The consistency across nations in many survey responses shows that students around the world are facing many of the same issues. For example, 72 percent of students globally say they have financial concerns about the future. Here are the key takeaways from the research: 

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The Global Higher Education Research Snapshot by Salesforce shows the COVID-19 pandemic has radically transformed higher education with digital transformation aimed at improving student's academic and career success outcomes. 

Keeping connected is a priority and challenge 

A higher percentage of students around the world say they feel more connected to advisors (31 percent), faculty members (32 percent), and other students (34 percent) than those who say they feel less connected (21, 20, and 25 percent, respectively). Seventy-seven percent of students report that receiving personalized messages would help them feel that their school cares about their success. A university's communications mission now is to find ways to consistently keep its students informed and engaged with a campus community it can't feel, see, or touch. Still, communications remain a challenge for institutions. This may in part be because students are demanding more connectivity.

A significant number of students report relying on online communities to help them prepare for the academic year (32 percent), make them feel more connected to other students (30 percent), or their instructors (29 percent), and make them feel like they belonged at their university (28 percent). Many say their institution can improve their pandemic response by using more frequent communications (27 percent). Forty-nine percent of students cited computer access as a challenge and 71 percent of students lack a quiet space in their homes where they can best learn

Seventy-seven percent of students report that receiving personalized messages would help them feel that their school cares about their success, a critical element especially during these times where many students are learning virtually. 

Reaching academic and career goals is now a top student priority

Getting an education that confers marketable skills and a chance at a good-paying job in the longer term is now a standard of success for more and more students. The survey findings show that students largely agree that their university is helping them achieve their academic goals (81 percent) and career goals (78 percent), and that they have a sense of belonging at their university (79 percent).

The pandemic has forced students to think deeply about how a postsecondary degree can support their career aspirations. A majority of students (60 percent) surveyed worry about finding employment after graduation, with France (70 percent) and Spain (77 percent) reporting the highest levels of concern.  

 A majority -- six in 10 -- of those who say they have altered their pursuit of a degree report they will increase the time they will take to earn it or are considering postponing their education. In addition, 39 percent of students are requiring more financial aid since last year. The research highlights the negative impact of COVID-19, wiping out entire classes of jobs worldwide with an emphasis on the impact of job losses on the poor and underserved communities. 

Forty percent of students say that finding a university that offers more help in finding an internship or a job is a key consideration in how they choose an institution. Student retention as a result of economic uncertainties is a big challenge. The research notes: "While the majority of students report that they will stay at the universities where they are currently enrolled, one quarter say that if they did switch, it would be because of their institution's handling of the pandemic. Another 25 percent say they would be likely to seek out a new institution that aligns better with their career goals, while 24 percent say they'd look for a university that is more likely to mirror their academic goals." 

The current economic uncertainty is impacting university staffers as well. They report a concern about the financial stability of their institutions regarding budget cuts (51 percent), the cancellation of events (40 percent), and a decrease in international students (40 percent).

Universities must continue to earn the trust of all stakeholders 

Along with ongoing questions about the cost and the value of university education, concerns about fairness have grown as COVID-19 has created new challenges for institutions.  The survey gives some hints of student living situations around the globe and how they may leave some students more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. The volatile nature of the pandemic and our inability to control the spread has led to strong pivots by universities - often with good intentions in terms of stakeholder safety as a top priority. That said, these changes have led to a trust deficit.  

Though they remain confident in their university's leadership, a considerable number of students (40 percent) cite a trust gap between them and leaders, and nearly half (48 percent) of those who cited a gap say that the pandemic caused the gap to grow larger. That gap was widest among students in Spain -- 46 percent. Overall, four in 10 students believe a gap in trust exists between faculty and college leaders -- almost identical to the number of college employees (41 percent) who report seeing such a gap. Keeping those institutions open despite climbing infection rates may be affecting students' levels of trust. Three in 10 students said universities could have improved their pandemic response by being more transparent.

Seventy-five percent of students overall say they would like to receive pandemic-related communications from their university more often, while some students believe that institutions should exhibit more transparent decision-making about the pandemic (30 percent).

Student wellbeing

Though the emotional, mental, and physical health of students has been a growing concern in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed wellbeing into a defining facet of their university experience. Numerous studies show that the world's precarious financial state and the loss of jobs have affected students and their sense of wellness. Thirty-two percent of students would like more wellbeing and mental health resources from their institution

A strong majority of students (73 percent) see maintaining their wellbeing as a paramount concern, followed closely by financial worries (72 percent). Nearly one in three students (32 percent) say that their institution could improve its COVID-19 response by providing students with more resources and support for wellbeing and mental health. Around 20 percent cited PPE and COVID-19 testing as resources they wish to see more often.

Sixty percent of students found it even more difficult to get mental-health care during the pandemic than before.

Flexible learning options 

 Besides the switch to remote education, significant numbers of survey respondents say that institutions can best improve their pandemic response by infusing flexibility into grading practices and course assignments (35 percent) and academic options (33 percent). More than half of the students overall expect more online courses in the coming year. Fifty-two percent of university staff say online learning is as effective as on-campus learning. Thirty-two percent of students worldwide say they cannot learn as well online as in the classroom. The good news is that more than half of employees (57 percent) report that their institutions are investing more in flexible learning options.

The research concludes by advising institutions to continue to find ways to actively engage with students during these difficult and uncertain times. Universities should foster more connections by creating more online student communities, as well as more opportunities to speak directly, if remotely, with advisors, alumni, mental-health professionals, and, of course, faculty. Creating and maintaining a sense of community is the best method of helping students achieve their academic and career goals. Universities also need to recognize while students are becoming more used to online learning and see it as part of the future, a significant number still place a high value on traditional, face-to-face learning, which they view as an integral facet of their education.

To learn more about the trends in higher education, you can visit the Salesforce research findings here